Jasenovac and Bleiburg:

Contested Narratives in Croatian Public Rituals

Croatia’s transition from communism and bloody war for independence in the 1990s radically redefined how the country viewed and commemorated its World War Two past. Whereas the victory of the communist-led Partisan movement had been a pillar of legitimacy for the Yugo­slav state, newly democratic and independent Croatia was faced with a divided memory of World War Two. On the one hand, antifascism was ingrained in Croatia’s consti­tution, and under Tito’s leadership the Partisans had reintegrated regions inhabited by ethnic Croats into the socialist republic of Croatia.  On the other hand, the pro-Nazi and pro-fascist Ustaša regime had fulfilled Croatian desires for an independent state in 1941, albeit one with a dictatorship that committed numerous war crimes.

My research explores how this divided memory of World War Two in the last eighteen years has been ex­pressed in politics, culture, interethnic relations, and especially annual commemorations.  Politicized rituals at various “sites of memory” (Pierre Nora’s lieux de mémoire) sym­bolize this divided social memory and contested histories of the twentieth century.  While the entire calen­dar of World War Two commemorations continues to spark debates in Croatian society, no rituals are as controversial as those held every year at the emotionally powerful sites of Jasenovac and Bleiburg.  Both Jasenovac, the most infamous of the Ustaša death camps, and Bleiburg, a symbol of post-war revenge killings by the Partisans, have seen their victims manipulated and nationalized for contemporary political purposes, especially during the turbulent 1990s.

This talk will examine the role these political rituals played in the latest period of violence that tore Yugoslavia apart, the symbols that are used at these commemorations to define identity and ideology, and the reaction of various segments of Croatian society to this traumatic divided memory.  Furthermore, the issues raised will touch on how a society comes to terms with a troubled past, the role of commemorations in reconciliation (or obstructing reconciliation) of post-war societies, and how contested histories affect bilateral relations between the Yugoslav successor states.  

                                   Wednesday 19 November, 14.15, Room 706 Niels Treschow’s building

Vjeran Pavlaković, PhD, is assistant professor in the Cultural Studies Department at the University of Rijeka in Croatia.  He received his PhD from the Department of History at the University of Washington in 2005, and had post-doctoral fellowships at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and in Zagreb, Croatia.  He has published articles on refugee issues in the former Yugoslavia, war criminals and war crime tribunals, and sites of memory in the Yugoslav successor states, as well as co-editing the book Serbia since 1989: Politics and Society under Milošević and After, published by the University of Washington Press.  He is currently working on a book, Red Stars, Black Shirts: Commemorations and Contested Histories of World War Two in Croatia